Sunday, June 23, 2019

Two unusual noirs from France and Italy


I recently read Pierre Garnier's C'Est la vie and Tioachino Criaco's Black Souls, both of which are unusual takes on noir tropes. Black Souls is less like a novel than an epic, delineating the history of a crime family in central Italy in the voice of their leader, as he rises from shepherd to crime boss and then crashes in an epic sacrifice that fades out in a cloud of mythic proportions. It's a compelling read, but without a central thread of plot, other than a string of incidents along the thread of the hero's life.

C'Est la Vie on the other hand begins as a traditional novel, in the voice of a writer who is dissatisfied with his life despite having finally had success with his new novel. The intricate plot revolves around his son, one of his former wives, his current (much younger) wife, leading toward (like Black Souls) a final conflagration that achieves a surrealist, dreamlike version of noir in which the hero retreatsf rom life (almost) into a trapped-in mental state he maintains seemingly by force of his will.

Both these books are fascinating, and both defy the expectations of readers: adventurous crime fiction readers should take a break from conventional fiction and have a look.


Monday, May 13, 2019

Sean Carswell, Dead Extra

See my review at: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/other-scripts-within-the-story-on-sean-carswells-dead-extra
@lreviewofbooks

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Catch-up list

I've been lazy about doing reviews here, and will need to run a bunch of short ones to catch up. Not ready to do that today, but here's a list of books recently read, reviews to come:

Antonio Manzini: Spring Cleaning (Italy)
Peter Church: Crackerjack (South Africa)
Donna Leon: Unto us a Son is Given (Italy)
Ilaaria Tuti: Flowers over the Inferno (Italy)
Jussi Adler-Olsson (Denmark)
Deon Meyer: The Woman in the Blue Cloak (South Africa)
Gioachino Criaco: Black Souls (Italy)

I'm not promisingn to review them in that order, and not promising how soon...

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Laura Lippman, Sunburn

I recently read, or rather heard, two audiobooks by Laura Lippman: her current standalone novel Sunburn and a previous book in her Baltimore private detective series (Hush Hush). The detective novel worked OK as an audiobook, and having read several earlier books in the series, the story offers a new investigation as well as updates on familiar characters and settings. But Sunburn particularly shined in the audio version (though I can imagine it is also satisfying as words on paper). Lippman has turned noir inside-out in her reimagining of the genre as practiced by James M. Cain and other pioneers of small-town, truckstop noir. Lippman begins with a stock scenario, two strangers in a bar, who've stopped as they passed through this small town in lower Delaware, a town not close enough to the beach to be prosperous. Their interaction is relayed in both their points of view, in alternation (as is much of the book), and their voices tell the story as much in what they leave out as what they tell: the key events in the story, murder, arson, fraud, conspiracies of several sorts, occur in the in-between spaces, referred to obliquely rather than portrayed directly. The effect is a tightening web woven by the characters out of their own personal lives and struggles. Sunburn is a departure for Lippman, both from her detective series and from her previous standalones, which are psychological thrillers. Sunburn, on the other hand, is a satisfying plunge into purest noir, told through the spiralling voices pulling the characters through twists and revelations toward the sort of final crash that not everyone can survive.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Three short takes from Norway, Italy, and Alaska

Catching up on a few recent books of note. First, Anne Holt's In Dust and Ashes, the 10th and purportedly last in the series featuring brilliant detective Hanne Wilhelmsen--and to my mind the best of the series. Hanne has usually had a colorful sidekick, and for this novel it's a young, bright detective trying to claw his way up out of the autistic spectrum--among her sidekicks, I think he's the most interesting. The case at hand involves a cold case (and since Hanne is retired, she now only deals with cold cases), a recently released convicted killer, the suicide of a right-wing blogger, and the kidnapping of a young girl. The story includes a twist on the lcked-room mystery as well as the trope of the brilliant investigator who rarelly leaves her home, but the novel is unique in the way it draws all the threads and the tropes together.

Valerio Varesi's series featuring Commissario Soneri is set in Parma, a foggy city on the Po river in the north of Italy. An older woman comes to the Questura seeking Soneri, but he doesn't see her--and a complex set of events is set in motion that takes the Commissario back to his yuoth in unexpected and unpleasant ways. He discovers the landlady of the boarding house where his deceased wife had lived before they were married, and for the rest of the novel, his wife's life before he met her, the boarding house, and the later denizens of the building haunt Soneri, as he wanders back and forth through the past and present of a city much changed. Although the story can seem a bit static at times, the musings of the detective and the story that emerges slowly are fascinating.

Stan Jones has been publishing a series for some years based in the small town of Chukchi in rural Alaska, featuring policeman Nathan Active, who though a native Alaskan was raised int he white community in the city, and is an outsider in both communities. The latest installment, written with Patricia Watts, is The Big Empty, alterntes between the vast interior of Alaska, a setting that Jones has always been effective in portraying, and the gritty small town at its edge. After a plane crash taht had been declared caused by pilot error, Active is persuaded to investigate what turs out to be murder and the novel follows his pursuit of the truth from a unique method of killing through a web of revenge, guilt, and troubled families (including his own. As with all the Nathan Active books, this is a great read and a fascinating look at an environment (both town and wilderness) that few of us have the chance to experience.



Saturday, October 20, 2018

Gianrico Carofiglio's new The Cold Summer

My review is live at The Los Angeles Review of Books:
https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/meaning-to-chaos/

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Forthcoming: Tana French, The Witch Elm

Tana French's milieu is groups of young people, families, school groups, and the like. My favorite among her Dublic police novels is Faithful Place, which is focused on an adult cop, but a substantial part of the novel is flashback to his teen years. Similarly, her acclaimed first novel, In the Woods, centers around an incident in the main character's childhood, and her second novel (less succesful, to me,), The Likeness focuses on a group of college students, which the main character infiltrates. The series is about cops, but in The Secret Place one of the main characters is a cop's daughter, and the main setting is her school.

French's new, standalone novel, The Witch Elm includes both present-day interaction among a group of cousins in their 20s and the youth that they remember (or not, or misremember). There are still cops (the Guards, in Ireland), but they're not at center stage, most of the time. Instead, we're trapped in the mind and narrative voice is Toby Hennessey, who is violently attacked toward the beginning, and musst confront new challenges from within the limitations of the head injury that he suffers in the attack.

The result is a classic "unreliable narrator" story, and the chief contrast in the telling of the tale is between his interior monologue (remembered from a future point of view) and the conversations he has with his cousins, two different teams of detectives, and other family members and friends.The result can be frustrating, and the twists and turns of the plot are considerably delayed by the slow pace of this oblique storytelling.  I miss the sometimes funny, sometimes nasty family relationships of Faithful Place: The Witch Elm has more in common with The Likeness or The Secret Place, in that the reader is embedded in the interplay aong the young people in the novel, for better or worse. The result is classic Tana French, with a bit of metafiction added to the mix toward the end, turning the narrative back on the narrator's mental state.

The twists in the plot, when they arrive, seem satisfyingly inevitable in the way they transform the story, with an emotional charge that will be familiar to readers of French's series novels. But the cops in this story, as central to the telling of the tale as they eventually become, are not as fully drawn as those in the seires, and I miss that element in her work. The Witch Elm will certainly satisfy her fans, but I still think of Faithful Place as my favorite among her books, collowed by In the Woods.